The Bible, writes Phyllis Trible, was born and bred in a land of patriarchy, and abounds in male imagery and language. The interpretation of the Bible, too, has largely been in the hands of men. Only recently has any critique of this male dominance begun to emerge.
With particular reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, three approaches to the study of women may be identified:-
1. The case against women
The first approach emphasises the case against women. Less desirable in the eyes of her parents than a male child, a girl stayed close to her mother, but her father controlled her life until he relinquished her to another man for marriage.
Old Testament narratives show women being submitted to male mistreatment without recourse. Thus,
- Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom to protect a male guest, Gen 19:8;
- Jephthah sacrified his daughter in order to keep a foolish vow, Judges 11:29-40;
- Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, 2 Sam 13;
- A Levite participated with other males in the violent abuse of his concubine, Judges 19.
The law amplifies this male domination. Women were defined as the property of men, Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21. Virginity was required in a bride, but not in a husband. Women had no right to divorce, Deut 24:1-4, and usually no right to property. They were excluded from the priesthood. Even their monetary value was less, Lev 27:1-7.
In response to such data, some regard biblical faith as hopeless misogynist, and the Bible as devoid of any continuing authority.
2. A scriptural critique of patriarchy
Others, however, detect within Scripture itself a critique of patriarchy, highlighting certain neglected texts and reinterpreting some familiar ones. Prominent among the former are those passage that speak of the deity as feminine. Psalm 22:9f represents God as midwife and mother. Deut 32:18 makes a similar point even more forcefully: God is strikingly portrayed as a woman in labour pains. Jer 31:15-22 refers to God’s compassion using the language of the womb.
Feminist interpretation draws attention to women who counter the prevailing patriarchal culture. In the early chapters of Exodus, for instance, two female slaves opposed Pharoah by refusing to kill newborn sons; even their names are recalled (even though the name of the Pharaoh is not mentioned). The story of Moses’ advent continues with the quiet defiance his mother and sister, and then the compassionate action of the daughter of Pharaoh.
A feminist interpretation of Genesis 2-3 points out that the primal woman was not created the assistant or subordinate of the man. In fact, the word translated ‘helper’ normally denotes superiority, not inferiority (although the expression ‘fit for’ or ‘corresponding to’ specifies the mutuality of woman and man). When the serpent speaks with the woman, he use plural forms, making her the spokesperson for the human couple. She acts of theologian, ethicist, hermeneut, and rabbi. The man ‘who was with her’ during this temptation is certainly not represented as her moral superior.
This discovery of a counter-literature that pertains to women does not eliminate the male bias of Scripture, but it does function as a ‘remnant theology’.
3. Re-telling the biblical stories sympathetically
A third approach builds on the first two by re-telling biblical stories of abuse and neglect with sympathy, calling readers to remember the suffering of women. This seems to be the case in the account of the abuse of the concubine in Judges 19, after which there is a call to reflection, 19:30, and a suggestion of the solution of kingship, 21:25.
Similarly, feminist re-tellings of the account of the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah will emphasise the daughters of Jerusalem to whom this unnamed virgin child reaches out in her last days, Judges 11:37, and the way in which she (not ‘it’) became a tradition in Israel, 11:40. The women with whom she spent her last days do not let her pass into oblivion; they establish an abiding memorial.
Based on “Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Studies.” Christian Century 3-10 (Feb 1982), pp116-18. Reproduced in McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 3rd Edition, pp156-160.
It was interesting to read this brief essay by a respected feminist biblical scholar. It is good to have male assumptions questioned and, where necessary, corrected.
Of course, cherry-picking a few texts that are susceptible to re-interpretation does not amount to a whole-sale undermining of a complementarian understanding of biblical teaching on the roles of women and men.
Then again, the occasional use of feminine imagery for God by no means suggests that we can discount the overwhelming evidence that indicates that if we are to think of God in gendered terms at all, we are to think of God primarily as ‘Father’.
I do not for a moment think that the Old Testament itself is neutral about the terrible abuse of certain women in, say, the book of Judges. Maybe we needed to be reminded by feminist scholars, but the sense of horror was there all along.